Women Writers and Virago Modern Classics

Thanks to The Literary Saloon, I came across a fabulous article by Jonathan Coe in The Guardian called “My Literary Love Affair,” about how he discovered Virago Modern Classics. The article is fabulous for a couple of reasons: because it’s got information on the history of the series and because Coe’s story of encountering these books is a good one. He describes coming across the series in a bookstore in 1982 and being intrigued by the phrase “modern classics” connected with names he hadn’t ever heard of before — May Sinclair, Dorothy Richardson, Rosamond Lehmann. He says that calling these books by largely forgotten women authors “modern classics” was a powerful political statement at a time when the term “classic” meant a little more than it does today.

So, he reads some of these books and finds himself and his writing changed. This is what he says about the experience:

Before long, the Virago novels would unseat some of my deepest assumptions as a reader, and also alter my course as a writer. It was under their influence, in my mid-20s, that I abandoned straightforward autobiographical writing and chose a female protagonist for my first published novel, The Accidental Woman; while my latest, The Rain Before it Falls, is intended (among other things) as an hommage to the whole list and the authors which it reintroduced.

He talks a lot about Dorothy Richardson’s long, Proustian-like novel Pilgrimage (Pointed Roofs is the first part). Pilgrimage was considered hugely important in its day, but around the time of World War II fell out of favor and has never returned. Coe describes how Richardson experiments with style, trying to produce what she termed “a feminine equivalent of the current masculine realism.”

He also describes May Sinclair’s work and says of Rosamond Lehmann that he has had a decades long literary love affair with her writing. Lehmann is an interesting case study in how women writers get marginalized for taking up supposedly “female” subjects; one male reviewer wrote of The Echoing Grove that “so prolonged a voyage in an exclusively emotional and sexual sea afflicts a male reader at least with a sense of surfeit” and another that “entirely, exquisitely feminine readers, trousered or otherwise, will probably receive the book with rapture.” Coe points out that Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair, published at the same time and with a similar tone and theme, did not receive the same treatment.

Coe argues that the Virago series was and still is important in countering critical bias against women writers, but that work still needs to be done, and he points to the relatively few women who make the Booker prize shortlists as evidence. But he does recognize that attitudes are changing, and he makes his point with this intriguing argument:

But there is a sense that the crude gender bias in British literary culture which Virago challenged so effectively in the 1970s and 80s no longer exists. Most of the new writers who have broken through to critical acclaim and big readerships in recent years have been women: Monica Ali, Zadie Smith, Ali Smith, Lionel Shriver, Marina Lewycka, Sarah Waters and Susanna Clarke, among others. And these writers are, for the most part, writing big, historically and politically engaged novels, not voyaging in “an exclusively emotional and sexual sea” – a phrase that might rather be applied (accurately, but non-pejoratively) to a novel like Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. In 2007, it’s Graham Swift who writes a novel focused entirely on the domestic and familial (Tomorrow), while writers such as Rose Tremain and Marina Lewycka examine the plight of low-paid migrant workers in the modern British economy. The old clichés about what distinguishes male writing from female writing no longer stand up to scrutiny.

Interesting, isn’t it? Reading about how important these women writers were for Coe made me quite happy, and I realized that I responded so positively because I don’t often hear male writers saying such things. Correct me if you think I’m wrong, but doesn’t it seem to be the case that it’s rare for male writers to acknowledge the importance of a specifically female tradition of writing for their own work? Coe isn’t merely pointing out one or two important female influences; he’s pointing to a tradition, and it’s one that taught him to write in ways the male writers he was already familiar with hadn’t.

Has anyone read Coe? I liked this article enough I’m curious about his own fiction.


Filed under Books, Reading

12 responses to “Women Writers and Virago Modern Classics

  1. hepzibah

    this is interesting, dorothy — I wish I could have minored in women’s studies, because my heart really does lie within that type of literature — Wharton, Cather, Dickinson, Morrison, Hurston, and now that I have just discovered Nella Larsen…


  2. What a great post, Dorothy. I have to go and read that article. Surely there must be male authors who have been influenced by female authors, but I can’t think of a single instance of reading about it. It’s amazing that he stumbled upon Viragos and even read them (I hope that doesn’t sound terrible, as I know there are men who do read them, but that doesn’t seem to be the norm). That last quote is also very interesting. I wonder how a novel like On Chesil Beach would have been received had it been written by a woman–and would it be a Booker Shortlist finalist? I’ve never read Coe, but I think I will have to search his work out now. Thanks for sharing the article.


  3. By the way, I really love those Viragos–I could happily read one after the other! 🙂


  4. I have read Coe and I do think he writes men and women equally well. The Rotter’s Club is a great book.


  5. I read the article this morning (with a cup of tea, in bed – the perfect place!) and very much enjoyed it. I love the Virago Classics and, you’re right, it was heartening to see a man commending them and celebrating their influence on his work. I was interested in his newest novel – The Rain Before it Falls – anyway, but now I will definitely seek it out. 🙂


  6. I’m glad you found this article too! My husband read it first and pointed it out to me; I’m lucky he enjoys Virago almost as much as I do. Now I want to read Jonathan Coe also – I never have.


  7. When I first began blogging I tried to encourage people to read Jonathan Coe but without success, so please do, Dorothy! I think he is a fabulous writer. I read The Rotter’s Club and thoroughly enjoyed it, as well as its sequel The Closed Circle. I very very nearly read The House of Sleep a couple of days ago when I was looking for a new book, but because it’s all about people with sleep disorders and my own rest isn’t entirely peaceful at present I decided against it! But I’ll be reading it soon. He is very intelligent and very accessible.


  8. What a great post and an interesting article. I have not read Coe but definitely want to now. The whole thing also makes me want to pull every Virago I own off the shelf and start reading them right now! I can’t think of any other male writer who has credited a female tradition of writing as a major influence on his own writing. I really appreciate that he acknowledges his debt.


  9. I read that article last night and found myself immediately jotting names and titles down into my ‘books I want to find’ notebook; he’s a very good advocate. And all of this despite the awful, awful front cover of the print version of the Guardian review (where this is the lead article) in which a full page is taken up with the headline ‘Jonathan Coe. How I fell for women’s fiction’ and an insipid illustration of a woman with a cup of tea and a book. Ghastly! I was tempted to skip the article altogether until I saw it was about Virago. Now I’m grateful I did read it but I think the Guardian’s editor did him no favours. It looks like he’s about to sing the praises of Mills & Boon or Barbara Cartland!


  10. Hepzibah — I’m guessing you have many years of education ahead of you to study women’s writing!

    Danielle — good question about On Chesil Beach — I’m not sure how it would have been received if written by a woman, but surely the reception would be different (of course McEwan’s reputation helps him out). It IS amazing that Coe found and read all those Viragos — I agree. It’s disturbing to me that I find it amazing, but it’s evidence, I think, that women writers so often aren’t taken seriously.

    By the way, I think I have you to think for introducing me to Viragos; I don’t remember hearing about them before reading your blog!

    Charlotte — well, I have just mooched a Coe novel, The House of Sleep, so we’ll see how I like him. I’m glad to hear you’ve enjoyed his writing.

    Victoria — that sounds lovely! 🙂 Coe is now on my TBR list too.

    Melanie — I wonder if the Coe article will win him a bunch of new readers!

    Litlove — very good to know! I’ve got The House of Sleep coming (eventually), so perhaps I’ll join you in reading him soon.

    Stefanie — yes, I think you’ll like the Coe article a lot, and I want to read all those authors too!

    Sandra — horrors!! Terrible. It undermines his point entirely, to be drawing on stereotypes of women’s writing. I bet Coe didn’t like it.


  11. I love Viragos too. My eyes light up whenever I catch sight of one from the green-spine era in a used bookstore.

    The closest I’ve gotten to Coe was to flip through his biography of experimental novelist B.S. Johnson (“Like a Fiery Elephant”). Putting that alongside his fondness for Viragos, it certainly seems that he’s open to a broad range of influences. I do plan to read that Johnson biography at some point, and now I will make sure to add some of Coe’s fiction to my TBR list as well.


  12. ella

    I love the cover art work, however I’m sure they could have looked a bit harder and found some women artists too!!


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